Capitol Reef with Kids

Located in south-central Utah, Capitol Reef National Park is the stunning, least visited member of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks. A bit off the beaten path, Capitol Reef has an otherworldly desert landscape and feels quite remote and quiet for a national park.

Because it’s out of the way, it’s a place to settle into and explore for at least a few days so plan your trip and head to Capitol Reef with kids.

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hiking in Capitol Reef National Park

What to Know About Capitol Reef NP

The Landscape of Capitol Reef

A unique feature sets Capitol Reef apart – its Waterpocket Fold, a nearly 100-mile long geological landform in the Earth’s crust. It’s the reason for the scenic landscape of the area that has geological similarities to Mars. East of the park, there is the Mars Desert Research Station, a training ground for exploration on Mars. You’ll also find abundant greenery in the valley thanks to the Fremont River that runs through it. This valley is home to the Fruita campground and historic Fruita nestled in the fruit orchards. 

The History of Capitol Reef

This area of Utah has drawn in people for thousands of years. Capitol Reef is steeped in history, from the migrating tribes in ancient times to the Fremont people, the first settlers and farmers of the Valley to the Mormon pioneers who came in the 1800s and planted orchards of fruit and nuts in Fruita. Today, the National Park Service has preserved the many stories and artifacts of the people who came before – petroglyphs, buildings, orchards and more. 

The name Capitol Reef is interesting; it comes from early settlers. They took two separate observations and put them into one name. Early settlers noticed that the white domes resembled the Capitol building in Washington DC and other explorers thought that the Waterpocket Fold was like a reef, serving as a huge barrier to their travels.

Good to Know Before You Go

Before you embark on your journey, it’s essential to be aware of the park’s unique weather patterns, the arid desert environment can bring scorching days and chilly nights, even monsoons and flash flooding in the summer. It’s also in a remote region, far from much of modern civilization. The closest town is a 20-30 minute drive. Be prepared and stock up on snacks, water, sunscreen, layers, and proper gear. Always remember the commitment to leave no trace.

Give this typically underrated park a shot and enjoy what Capitol Reef has to offer for both adults and kids – otherworldly landscapes, fresh pies, and lots of history.

Things to Do at Capitol Reef National Park

Grand Wash Trail

boy hiking at grand wash trail

Location / Trailhead:

At the end of the Scenic Drive that starts at the Visitor Center, take a left onto Grand Wash Road. You’ll drive on this dirt road for 1.3 miles. The parking lot fills up so you may need to park along the final stretch of the road just before the parking lot. 

Length of Hike:

4.4 miles, out and back, flat through the canyon

About the Hike:

Go early or late. The midday sun can leave you quite exposed between the canyon walls. It’s an impressive hike that kids will enjoy. There are plenty of good snack spots and rocks to jump off of along the trail (not off trail!). It’s a deep canyon with sections of Narrows, often compared to the Narrows of Zion National Park without the water. Avoid going when rainstorms are in the forecast due to possible flash flooding.

Fremont River Trail

girl on bridge at the Fremont River Trail Capitol Reef

Location / Trailhead:

You can access the trail from any point along the river from the Visitor Center to the campgrounds.

Length of Hike:

2 miles, out and back, easy stroll along the river with a climb at the end

About the Hike:

We didn’t hike the whole thing, but used it as an evening activity to stroll along the river. You are alongside orchards on the left and the river on the right. There are many spots to stop and relax and take in the sights and sounds. If you choose to go to the end of the trail, there is a steep climb off to the left that leads to an overlook of Fruita and the waterpocket fold.

Cohab Canyon Trail

boy at Cohab Canyon Trailhead sign at Capitol Reef National Park

Location / Trailhead:

The trailhead is located across from the Fruita campground. There are parking lots throughout the historic Fruita district with a short walk to the trailhead.

Length of Hike:

3 miles, out and back, there is a steep climb at the beginning of the trail, but it becomes mostly flat or low-grade downhill through the canyon

About the Hike:

An amazing hike with a sharp incline at the start full of switchbacks. After the climb, you get an amazing view of the valley and the orchards below. Just after the left turn into the high elevation canyon, you get this otherworldly view of red canyon walls, pink sand, unique trees and many wildflowers. We made up stories about martians along the way, not knowing that the larger Capitol Reef area is where they tested the Mars Rover to help with its future missions! This incredible scenery made for a fun hike and the kids stayed engaged because it was so different from our usual pines and forest.

Cohab Canyon Trail Capitol Reef

Capitol Reef NP Scenic Drive

This drive starts at the visitor center and is 7.9 miles of paved road leading to dirt spur roads – Grand Wash Road and Capitol Gorge Road – as well as Pleasant Creek road and South Draw Road. There is a $20 entrance fee for the Scenic Drive if you are not a National Parks pass holder. 

We drove all the way to Capitol Gorge Road and found ourselves in some impressive canyons as we bounced along the dirt road. Though we hoped to, we weren’t able to do the hike (sleeping kids in the back). This trail goes through a deep canyon and has a short climb up to waterpockets/tanks where you can see The Pioneer Register – inscriptions in the rock wall featuring hundreds of signatures of pioneers passing through.

Fun fact: until 1962, the Capitol Gorge Trail used to be the only way through the area – there were no other options for cars!

Fruita Campground (Complete with Full Fruit Orchards and Fresh Pies)

Camp in the Park

We stayed at the developed Fruita campground for two nights to explore Capitol Reef. We were right next to orchards full of newly emerging fruit. Deer grazed at dusk and we were able to walk easily to the things we were interested in: pies, trailheads, and the river.

If you’re interested in camping, be persistent in making reservations. I checked daily for a month until the right dates opened up; I booked them right then. There are also two primitive campgrounds inside the National Park.

Eat Pies at the Gifford House

The Gifford House opens on March 14 (Pi Day) and closes for winter on November 25. The best times for pie close to their two baking sessions each day: first thing in the morning or right around lunch time. We were fans of breakfast pies eaten after an early morning hike or to give us some sweet energy before heading to the trail. They also have giant cinnamon rolls if that is your preference. The shop is also full of jams, other fun trinkets and period replicas unique to the National Park.

boy eating cherry pie at Gifford House Capitol Reef

Pick Orchard Grown Fruit

The 1,900 trees in the orchards grow apples, apricots, cherries, peaches, pears, plums, almonds, walnuts and more. If you’re there during harvest season (peak times are usually July to September), you can pick ripe fruit straight from the trees. If you want to take your bounty home, remember to pay for it at the self-pay stations. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to partake in any fruit picking, but it was fun to stroll through orchards.

See the Petroglyphs

Location / Trailhead:

Along Utah State Route 24 just past the turnoff for the Visitor Center, parking is right out front and you can take a quick walk along a boardwalk to the Petroglyphs. 

Length of Hike:

.25 miles out and back, not quite a hike, but an easy stroll.

About the Hike:

Here, you can see some ancient drawings of native people in the area.

“The shorter boardwalk provides views of large, anthropomorphic (human-like) petroglyphs, as well as bighorn sheep petroglyphs, and other animals and geometric designs. The longer boardwalk parallels the cliffs, and the petroglyphs along it are closer to the viewer, but harder to see because of a patina that has developed over them.”

NPS

Ranger Fun

Junior Ranger Badges

This is always a must for my kids (or is it a must for me?). It helps them stay engaged with our surroundings and provides a variety of activities for any campsite downtime.

Capitol Reef Junior Ranger book is a great activity for capitol reef with kids

Listen to a Ranger-Led Talk 

The subjects vary and include archaeology, geology, history, and more. I sat in on an evening talk that explored the evolution of community and culture at Capitol Reef and how the Mormon settlers established themselves in such a harsh area. Before this talk, I had focused on learning about the landscape and geology, but understanding more about how people lived here in the recent past was fascinating. The location for these talks was right next to the campground.

Insider Info for Capitol Reef

What to Pack

Make sure to pack layers for the temperatures swings, sunscreen for intense sunshine, gear for hiking, camping and other activities, and (I wish I knew this in advance) allergy meds if you go during pollen season, especially if you camp among the orchards. 

How to Get Around

A car is a must; it’s the only way to get around the area. The closest towns are miles away and necessary if you need gas, groceries, cell service or a shower.

Closest towns: Torrey, 11mi; Loa, 28mi; Hanksville, 37mi

Food In Capitol Reef

There is no food or water for sale in the park, so it’s best to pack in what you’ll need regardless of if you are camping for a few days or doing a quick visit during the day.

Ideas for Food to Make or Bring: 

We did a lot of campfire cooking for our meals. Our staples tend to be grilled cheese, soups, oatmeal. And of course, coffee and hot chocolate on those chilly mornings. TMM has great resources for lunch and dinner ideas, made with or without a campfire. 

This trail meals cookbook by Outdoor Eats has some inventive, easy meals that we put to use on this trip. Our favorite meal was the Spanish grain bowl. It was so easy and we felt pretty gourmet munching on manchego, chorizo and Spanish olives.

Restaurants in Torrey:

The Rim Rock Inn & Restaurants – They have pizza and a more traditional dine in restaurant. We passed it a few times and were tempted to sit down for a hot pizza.

The Chuckwagon Deli – This deli is located in the back of the building with the majority being a shop for provisions, both food and other supplies.

La Cueva – A Mexican restaurant with great reviews.

Seasonal Tips

Changing seasons always teach us new things about the areas we’re visiting. Here’s what to know about Capitol Reef: 

  • Spring: early spring is cool with possible snow, late spring means higher pollen count down in the orchards.
  • Summer: bring a hat and more water than you think, it can get hot. Watch for monsoons and pay attention to washes and canyons in the event of a sudden rain storm. Prepare to pick some fruit!
  • Fall: likely the best time to visit in terms of weather, and harvest is still going on in the early part of the season.
  • Winter: the park is open year-round, but be prepared for snow.
views while hiking at Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park with Kids

Capitol Reef National Park was such a fun place to visit. We had never been anywhere like it and are glad we made the trek. 

It’s less crowded than the other Utah National Parks, but is so spectacular. The impressive landscape from the Waterpocket Fold gives families so much to discover. And the pioneer and native history adds a little something extra to this visit. Make sure you enjoy a pie or three! 

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Capitol Reef with Kids

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  • Whitney, originally from northern Virginia, is currently living in Flagstaff, Arizona, (with solid stints in Paris, France and Los Angeles in between). Whitney, her husband and two kids can often be found outside, taking advantage of what mountain life has to offer. Most weekends, they embark on adventures big and small - hiking, biking, camping, and snowboarding happen often. Outside of that, you can typically find her in the kitchen baking goodies or working for her brand strategy clients.

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